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October 2016 Policy Study, Number 16-3


How To Restore Federal Fiscal Sanity: The State Legislatures Hold The Key


Was The 1787 Philadelphia Convention A Runaway Convention?



No, not in any way.


We need to remember that this is not 1787.  The situation then was totally different from our present powerful government and strong Constitution.  The Articles of Confederation were dead, the U.S. government had collapsed, the national debt was in default, and armed mobs were closing down courthouses.  But in spite of that chaos, the 1787 convention was lawful and orderly.


The Constitutional Congress requested the 1787 convention to revise the Articles of Confederation but added that “such alterations and provisions should render the federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government and the preservation of the Union.”  This broad scope was vastly greater than the authority of a limited convention under Article V of our present Constitution.


The states gave the 1787 convention even broader authority.  Ten of the twelve states which sent delegates (“Commissioners”) specifically gave them general rather than limited powers.  For example, Virginia authorized its delegates to propose “all such alterations as may be necessary  . . . to the Exigencies of the Union.”  See “Index of Original Documents prepared by Attorney John Armor for American Legislative Exchange Council,” and Record of the Federal Constitution of 1787, edited by Max Farrand, Yale University Press, 1966, Vol. III, Appendix B, pp. 555-587.


The 1787 convention was called as a general convention, not limited one.


Also, the Articles of Confederation contained no effective amendment process.  Therefore, the 1787 convention had to decide how its proposals could be ratified.


In complete contrast, any future constitutional convention could be called under Article V and will be bound by the specific Article V requirement for ratification by three-fourths of the states.  Our present Constitution, unlike the Articles of Confederation, carefully restricts what a convention can do.


Even so, the 1787 convention acted responsibly and cautiously.  It proposed that the new Constitution could be ratified by nine of the 13 states – but it would apply only to those states that chose to ratify it.  The convention then submitted its proposed Constitution to the Continental Congress, which debated eight days before submitting the document to the states for ratification.


To call the 1787 convention “runaway” is an attempt to rewrite history.  It could not and did not impose its will – even on a weak, chaotic nation.


We challenge our opponents to explain how the future “runaway convention,” which they profess to fear, could impose its will on the United States and its powerful, well-armed government.




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